Monthly Archives: March 2017

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strong vocabulary

4 Ways to Develop Strong Vocabulary: A Writer’s Guide

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When writers lack strong vocabulary skills, they miss opportunities to create compelling writing that pulls readers into their story and keeps them there. Do your word skills need sharpening? Don’t worry if your English teacher skipped the memorization and quizzes. It’s easy to take matters into your own hands.

Before I share some resources for building a fantastic word set, I’d like to show you a little example that will demonstrate the importance of having a rich and varied vocabulary.

Why a Strong Vocabulary Creates Writing That Works

The Inuit people have at least 100 words for snow. Why? Snow is such an important part of their culture that nuances among types of snow are extremely important. There’s snow that doesn’t stick (noontla) and snow that is crusted on the top (tlacringit). There’s wet snow, dry snow, slush, large flakes, packed snow — you get the idea. Each word to describe snow ascribes to it a slight difference from other types of snow. Not only does this wordsmithing allow for distinguishing between different states and uses for snow, but it makes snow, in general, a hell of a lot less boring.

Let’s take an English word and try to “snowball” it–that is, see if we can find some strong vocabulary words to put variety in our writing. I’m going to use the word “red”.

There’s a red wagon. 

Awesome, a red wagon. But what if you now have a red horse hitched to it? And the driver of the wagon is getting over a hangover? And he’s also wearing a red rose in his riding jacket?

The chestnut mare swished her tail as she waited for Gareth to finish hitching her to the cherry-red wagon. Gareth was moving slowly, his bloodshot eyes reflecting the crimson of the rose he’d tucked in his lapel-button this morning. As the sun glowed russet through the soft blush of blossoms in an early-blooming tree, a scarlet bird shrilled a tune, making Gareth’s already inflamed head hurt even more.

All of the bolded words are synonyms for “red”. While some, like “inflamed,” are not used to replace the word red per se, the synonym still helps the reader get the impression of redness. If you wanted to create a scene that made a reader feel heat or anger, using a lot of “red words” would help you.  And at least your sentence wouldn’t read like this:

The red mare swished her tail as she waited for Gareth to finish hitching her to the red wagon. Gareth was moving slowly, his red eyes reflecting the red of the rose he’d tucked in his lapel-button this morning. As the sun glowed red through the soft red of blossoms in an early-blooming tree, a red bird shrilled a tune, making Gareth’s already inflamed head hurt even more.

See the difference? Okay, on to the resources!

Resources for a Strong Vocabulary

Easiest: Read more. Word choices, language nuances and grammar skills are all improved through voracious reading. Get to it!

Easy: your local thesaurus. Free online.

Fun and Games: Here’s a list of 7 mobile apps that will help you have fun and learn words at the same time.

Interactive: Vocabulary.com will help you get up to speed fast with its adaptive learning game. Account required, but it is free.

 

The next time you’re feeling lackluster, give Bored Panda and Buzzfeed a break and try one of the websites or apps, above. Or, you know, pick up a book by a fellow writer and give it a read. What you learn will surprise you!

See you on the next page!

 

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 Click the cover below to start reading!


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dumbing down

The Dumbing Down of Literature

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Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.

The phenomenon has plagued the literary community for decades, and even more so in recent years when fast news and byte-sized information bits are the order of the day. Many schools across our country are no longer teaching spelling and writing is relegated to personal narrative. I have three graduating seniors in one of the most acclaimed school districts in the state of Texas. They have written nothing but poetry and personal narrative in English class from sixth through eleventh grade. They’ve never written an expository essay, a literary critique or, God forbid, a research paper, replete with footnotes.

And vocabulary? That’s where the dumbing down is most prevalent. I remember memorizing page after page of vocabulary words throughout my school years. Did I ever use the word “pulchritudinous” in real life? Of course not, but I do know what it means. And by knowing that, I can also discern what other words with the root “pulchrit” might convey, as well.

Language is fascinating, so why do we seek to tone it down at every turn? There are some compelling arguments for dumbing down speech, written or otherwise. Have you ever read a legal document with it’s “wherewithals” and “soforths”? Feast your eyes on this example:

As stated heretofore, the landlord’s conduct created, caused, and resulted in serious bodily harm and massive injuries, to wit: a broken and mangled left leg, lacerations to the aforementioned leg, and several broken digits on the foot attached to said leg, in witness whereof was the spouse of the injured party.

Huh? How about: “The landlord broke the injured party’s leg in front of his/her spouse”. It’s quicker to read, easier to understand, and less likely to be misunderstood.

The aforementioned (heh, heh, couldn’t resist) example is the reason why I’m okay with some elements of dumbing down. For example, I hate to use the word “utilize” when “use” is simpler, cleaner, and, in my opinion, more explicative. Can you imagine someone in an emergency screaming “Utilize your oxygen mask! Utilize your oxygen mask!”? No, because use gets the job done quicker and with less chance of misunderstanding. But too much focus on language simplification means we risk taking variety and nuance out of our spoken and written word.

Dumbing Down Fiction

Today’s fiction is an unfortunate victim of literary simplification. But just as the classics (e.g, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities, Crime and Punishment) may have seemed clunky and slow to our school-aged selves, some current fiction has the same effect on today’s technologically distracted and internet-connected youth. The public’s tastes are changing and literature, like other art forms, must change with the market and the times. This is why no one writes like Dickens any longer.

Still, as a writer I think it sad that some beautiful words will fall by the wayside if this trend continues. If most college freshmen are reading at a 7th grade level, we have no choice but to write to be understood. It’s not for us to pontificate on the finer points of language, but to expand our readers’ horizons with tales that take them on fantastic journeys of the mind.

But in my opinion, if they learn a few new words on the way, that, my friend, is a pulchritudinous thing.

See you on the next page!

By the way, this post scored 57 in the Flesch Reading Ease test, which is considered fairly difficult to read. Here’s what that means:flesch reading test

 


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good writing simile

The Art of Simile: Making Good Writing Great

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Description that brings a clear picture into a reader’s mind can make the difference between good writing and great writing. As writers, we’re often tasked with describing a single thing many times. Using the same description makes for lackluster prose, and importantly, bored readers.

One tool is to use similes to punch up the descriptive power of your writing. A simile is defined as a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lioncrazy like a fox ).

Sounds easy, right? It is, if you pay attention to some simple rules:

Don’t use common similes if you can avoid it. “Crazy like a fox” comes off sounding trite, not descriptive.

Don’t use the same simile more than once in your writing. You’ll sound like a broken record.

Regarding #2, above. I quit reading Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series because I didn’t want to hear him describe Pitt’s “opaline green eyes” one more time. While the phrase “opaline green eyes” does not constitute a simile, it does make for repetitive reading when you encounter it more than a few times. Some writers fall into the trap of using the same simile to describe an object more than once. Don’t do it!

Good Writing to Great: The Simile

Let’s work through some examples. Say I have two characters in a book who have the same dark, piercing eyes. Also imagine that those eyes are in some way important. Perhaps they link them as beings from another planet, members of the same family, or creatures of untold power. Whatever the case, I can’t keep saying “dark piercing eyes” over and over. Some common similes that jump to mind are:

  • Dark as night.
  • Black as velvet.
  • Deep as a well.

All good writing, but rather drab. Sometimes I can come up with amazing similes of my own, just by using my creative chops. Other times, not so much. Here’s a method to help you be more creative for those “other times” when your similes are falling flat.

Prepare for Success

Successful similes come from having a variety of choices. Make a list. What words might describe something dark? Use a thesaurus if you want, it’s not cheating.

  • dark —-charcoal
  • murky—–pitch
  • overcast—–raven
  • inky——sable
  • lightless——ebony
  • void——sooty
  • black——stygian
  • somber——starless
  • soulless—–slate
  • deep——-pitch
  • fathomless——obsidian

Now free-associate objects, situations, weather, landscapes, flowers, animals, people, emotions, etc. that might also be called dark. Do this quickly, there is no “right” or “wrong”, you’re just exercising creative muscle.

  • abyss—–well
  • funeral—–heart of a witch
  • crinoline—–tuxedo, top hat
  • coal——stagecoach
  • dahlia—–ocean at night
  • mine—–ace of spades
  • depression—–ebony wood
  • sadness—–lightning blasted tree
  • evil—–hearse
  • crows—–diamond
  • ashes of a dead fire—–pearl
  • gangrenous limb—–elf-forged sword
  • rotted tooth—–cave
  • panther—–swamp at midnight

Final Steps

Now use these words and phrases as a springboard to more clever, impactful, and descriptive similes.

  • His eyes smoldered, as cold and dark as coals in the ashes of a dead fire.
  • Her eyes were stygian wells of blackest pitch.
  • Her dark eyes sparkled like a moon-kissed ocean at midnight.

Of course, once you have a good beginning, you can embellish even more creatively by expanding your simile.

Her eyes were stygian wells of blackest pitch. Their cold gaze lingered, immersing me in a feeling so dark, I couldn’t extricate myself from it.

See how the sentence after the simile carries the characteristic of a “well of blackest pitch” to the next level? One is “immersed” in a well, making immersed a perfect verb to use here. Pitch is sticky and dark, so it makes a great descriptor for a doomed feeling that can’t be shaken off easily.

Now you try. Also, if you make your lists on the computer, you can keep them for future reference. You’ll be surprised at how many times you need the same adjectives for your descriptions. Start turning your good writing great right now!

See you on the next page!

 

 

 


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author intrusion

Intruder Alert: How to Stop Author Intrusion in Your Prose

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Author intrusion can be subtle or hit-you-upside-the-head obvious. As a writer, it’s easy to forget yourself and begin poking your nose in your characters’ business. As editors of our work, it’s important to recognize signs of an author break-in and self-correct when we can.

What’s author intrusion? It’s when the writer’s beliefs, knowledge, or opinions get into the mouths or actions of one or more characters. Here’s what it’s not: It’s not third person omniscience. Third person omniscience is a literary device that allows an all-knowing narrator to share insight that no other character has. Now, if that all-knowing narrator starts sounding a bit like the writer, then there’s a problem.

good and evilAuthor Intrusion: Issues

It’s difficult to separate yourself from your characters at times. After all, you are your characters. You’ve created them from the bottom up and infused them with whatever essence they have. But they should be a diverse bunch, in most cases. Not every character should have the same political, social, or religious philosophies. If they do, you’re intruding and readers can tell.

If your characters are all extreme about one topic, or make a character holding a dissenting opinion look especially dim or comical, your story reads more like a personal rant and less like a tale of warring factions or opposing views. Many stories showcase divergent ideals, emphasizing one over the other, without sounding like there’s a personal agenda being flouted.

Author Intrusion: Language

I remember reading Under the Dome, by Stephen King and finding it odd that almost every character in his small, rural-ish town had a potty mouth. Now, I’m not offended by blue language, but it seemed odd that even the local grandmas were cussing up a storm. Then, I remembered attending a lecture by King right before his novel, Misery, was released. He ranted on about being censored for language in his books but, he said, “that’s how people talk.”. This may be how he talks. It might be how his family talks. But it’s not how everyone talks, and that little bit of his personal style seeped through his novel in a way that even a reader could notice.

It’s not just word choice that matters, it’s style, too. Some authors, including me, prefer a formal writing style. I tend to use a lot of “I am” instead of “I’m”, forgoing contractions in my everyday writing, even though I don’t speak that way. I have some characters that are formal and it’s okay for them to speak that way. But it would be weird to have a teen character in a story set in 2017 state, “I am going to the football game. Would you like to go?” He’d be more likely to say, “Dude. Going to the game — wanna come?” or some variation. Point is, don’t let your language come out of your character’s mouth!

Author Intrusion: Research

I’m a research nut. I research everything — it’s just my nature. As a writer, though, you want to make sure that your copious knowledge about a particular subject doesn’t seep into your story in the wrong places. For example, if you’re writing a novel set in Victorian times, it’s important to understand a Hansom cab was considered the sports car of Victorian carriages, and that an upper class lady would not be seen in one because of its “racy” reputation. It’s another thing entirely for the gentleman owning the Hansom cab to understand how it works, how it’s maintained, or pretty much anything about it, other than perhaps the cost.

Some characters may have to have specialized knowledge: Scotty, the engineer from Star Trek, needs to know exactly how the warp drive functions to fulfill his role in a believable way. However, while Mrs. Harrow, the aging matriarch of a family who owns a salt mining business in my novella, Salt in the Blood, needs some business savvy to look after the family investments, she doesn’t necessarily know the technical details of salt mining.

What to Do?

Besides the tips mentioned above, try Method Writing to help keep your characters true to themselves. This skill is your first defense when tackling author intrusion and can keep it from happening in the first place. After your story’s written, make sure to have beta readers or other editors read through it to catch other instances of intrusion and don’t take it personally when they point out areas you need to clean up. After all, they’re readers, too. If you don’t have someone to look over your manuscript, at least let it sit for 48 hours to two weeks before revisiting it with “new” eyes. Removing author intrusion will make your writing more appealing to readers — something every writer strives for.

See you on the next page!

 


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